The 2020 MLB regular season promises to be unlike any other season in baseball history. The COVID-19 pandemic has shortened the season to 60 games, making it the shortest baseball season since 1877, and there will be a universal DH and an extra-inning tiebreaker rule. It will be weird, but MLB is doing what it can given the circumstances.
COVID-19 has hurt every industry immensely, even one as profitable as Major League Baseball. Teams have lost 102 games worth of revenue and they'll lose more revenue going forward as games are played without fans. The financial burden will undoubtedly trickle down to the players through free agency and arbitration. Payrolls are expected to shrink in 2021.
Top-tier free agents like Mookie Betts and George Springer should be OK this offseason. Their contracts may not be as large as initially expected, but they're still elite players, and they're going to get paid well. The second- and third-tier free agents figure to feel the squeeze the most. They're the players who will get smaller offers.
Some impending free agents have more on the line than others during this unusual 2020 season. Maybe they're coming back from injuries, or trying to prove their 2019 breakout was no fluke, or simply looking to prove they still have something to contribute late in their careers. Here are the seven impending free agents with the most on the line this summer.
The designated hitter has come to the National League, and while it is technically a temporary measure to protect pitchers during the shortened season, it is only a matter of time until it becomes permanent. It could happen as soon as 2021, though maybe we'll have to wait until the next collective bargaining agreement in 2022. Either way, it's coming.
The universal DH helps players like Yoenis Cespedes, the veterans who can still contribute with the bat but shouldn't play the field because they are defensive liabilities and/or have trouble staying healthy. Cespedes, now 34, has not played since July 2018 because of heel surgeries and a , though he's healthy now and impressing in Summer Camp.
"He looks like a monster. He looks like he's motivated," Michael Conforto told reporters, including MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, earlier this week. "... To get Yo in the lineup on an everyday basis, that's going to be absolutely incredible for us. It's something that we haven't had, and we're pretty excited about it."
With an additional 15 DH jobs on the horizon, Cespedes will have a greater chance to extend his career beyond 2020. He has to show everyone he can hit first, and he'll have to do it during a short season following what is now a two-year layoff. At his age and with his injury history, there's little chance Cespedes will ever sign another big contract. For him, this season is simply about staying in the game and continuing his career.
Betts and Springer are the clearly the top two outfielders set hit free agency this season. Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna, and Joc Pederson make up the second tier. Adam Eaton is in the next tier with guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Brett Gardner. The 31-year-old remains a pesky on-base guy and he hasn't posted a sub-100 OPS+ since 2013.
Injuries, however, limited Eaton to 118 of 324 possible games from 2017-18. He stayed healthy last season and played in 151 games, the third-highest total in his eight MLB seasons, and a healthy 60-game season in 2020 could be the difference between a one-year contract and a multi-year contract this winter. The shutdown gave his body time to recover and staying healthy for two months isn't too much to ask, is it?
It should be noted Eaton's contract includes a $10.5 million club option for 2021. That still might be a little too rich for the Nationals. Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg have escalating salaries, Trea Turner is making good money through arbitration, and a Juan Soto mega-deal is presumably on the horizon. Eaton wants to show the 2017-18 injuries are in the past in 2020.
Decent chance Ken Giles will be the best reliever to hit the open market this offseason. Liam Hendriks and Kirby Yates are scheduled to become free agents as well, though their track records as lockdown elite relievers are shorter, and they're both several years older than Giles. No other impending free agent reliever offers the same combination of youth and dominance.
As good as the 29-year-old Giles was last season -- and he was great -- his second half was interrupted by elbow woes. He only visited the injured list once and it was for the minimum 10 days, but the Blue Jays handled him very carefully down the stretch. Only once in the second half did Giles pitch on back-to-back days, and 15 of his 22 appearances after the All-Star break came with at least two days of rest.
A healthy 60-game season in 2020, complete with frequent appearances on back-to-back days, would go a long way to convincing teams Giles is healthy and his elbow is a non-issue. Baseball is so bullpen-centric these days that Giles will get signed no matter what. Health figures to be the difference between a one-year prove yourself deal or a three-year contract a la Will Smith.
It's not often a two-time Cy Young award winner has something to prove heading into free agency, but Corey Kluber does. He is 34 now and he lost most of the 2019 season to injuries. Neither injury was a structural arm injury (shoulder, elbow, etc.) -- Kluber had his forearm broken by a comebacker and then suffered an abdomen strain during his rehab -- though it equaled a lot of missed time.
Also, Kluber was not especially good before the injuries. He had a 5.80 ERA in 35 2/3 innings with his lowest strikeout rate (22.6 percent), his highest walk rate (8.9 percent), and his lowest ground ball rate (40.0 percent) since becoming a full-time big leaguer in 2013. Some of the underlying numbers have been trending in the wrong direction:
|Average fastball velocity||Strikeout rate||Hard-hit rate||Expected AVG||Expected SLG|
Fewer strikeouts and more hard contact equals an unsurprising rise in expected batting average and slugging percentage allowed, per Statcast. Those 2019 numbers come in a small sample size, so we have to take them with a grain of salt, but that's all the information we have on Kluber for last season. That's the last time teams saw him on the mound.
That will change when the 60-game season begins in two weeks. Kluber is with the Rangers now and will pitch in a brand new park -- for what it's worth, Joey Gallo told reporters Globe Life Field is playing "big as hell" during batting practice -- and he's pitching this season to prove those 35 2/3 innings last year were a blip, not the new normal.
Texas holds an $18 million club option on Kluber for 2021 and that suddenly looks much less likely to be exercised now than it did a few months ago. COVID-19 has changed the sport's financial landscape dramatically and an expensive one-year contract, even for someone with Kluber's pedigree, is no longer a slam dunk. Dollars will be allocated much more cautiously.
Why these impending MLB free agents have the most on the line in shortened 2020 season Kluber pitch well this season, the Rangers will pick up the $18 million option and he'll secure a nice 2021 payday. Should he pitch poorly this season, the option will be declined, and he'll have to head out into a depressed free agent market as a soon-to-be 35-year-old coming off two shortened and ineffective seasons. Not where Kluber (or anyone) wants to be, clearly.
The free agent market bounced back a bit last offseason, but, before we knew that would happen, Jake Odorizzi accepted the $17.8 million qualifying offer rather than test the market. Seemed like a sound strategy at the time. Take the guaranteed money rather than risk a weak market, then go into free agent with no draft pick compensation attached the next year. Made sense.
Since then Odorizzi, now 30, has seen the shutdown reduce his salary to $6.6 million, and it's unlikely owners will be in the giving mood this winter. The free agent market could be in (much) worse shape this offseason than the market Odorizzi accepted the qualifying offer to avoid this past offseason. Taking the $17.8 million seemed like a smart move at the time. Now? Yikes.
Odorizzi had arguably the best season of his career in 2019 -- his 27.1 percent strikeout rate was by far a career high -- though the extreme fly ball pitcher (career 33.1 percent grounders) managed the lowest home run rate (0.91 HR/9) of his career despite the juiced ball. That's ... unusual. Not sure Odorizzi can repeat that in 2020. If he doesn't, it'll only hurt his free agency more.
Taking another one-year contract next season and hoping for a better payday the next offseason is a viable strategy, though I doubt Odorizzi wants to kick the can down the road any further. He's in his 30s now and his earning potential is probably as good as it's going to get. Repeating his 2019 effort in 2020 should result in a multi-year contract this winter. Anything less will cost him.
The upcoming free agent class is thin on impact starting pitchers -- Trevor Bauer, Robbie Ray, and Marcus Stroman will be the best available and they've all been up and down in their careers -- and James Paxton may have more to gain during the shortened season than any impending free agent. He was lights out late last year with the Yankees ...
First 18 starts
Last 11 starts
... and he's flashed greatness in the past, most notably striking out 16 and throwing a no-hitter in consecutive starts in 2018. Paxton made changes to his pitch selection late last season -- the Yankees had him scale back on his fastball and throw more curveballs -- and that gives us a tangible reason to believe the improvement is real rather than a small sample size fluke.
At the same time, the 31-year-old Paxton has a very long injury history, including having back surgery this past February. He would have missed the first two months or so had the regular season started on time March 26. Paxton is healthy now though, and will be in New York's rotation on Opening Day.
The injury history will be held against Paxton no matter what. That's just the nature of free agency. The 60-game season gives him a chance to show the back is healthy and that last year's second-half surge was no fluke, and that's not nothing. Not at all. Being on the wrong side of 30 with that injury history will limit Paxton's earning potential, but a strong season figures to put him in position to get a nice multi-year contract rather than settle for a one-year prove yourself deal in 2021.
Can you believe Simmons will turn 31 in September? Feels like he just broke into the league last week. Andrelton Simmons remains an all-world defender at a premium position, though he's close to a glove-only player, and last year he battled a nagging ankle injury as well. No matter how good the defense, a .264/.309/.364 batting line is underwhelming. That's what Simmons did in 2019.
Defense is a young man's skill. It typically doesn't age gracefully and because he doesn't offer much with the stick, Simmons could see his value plummet the second his glove slips. He's a historically great defender -- Simmons is 14th all time in defensive WAR, regardless of position -- and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him age better than the typical 30-something shortstop. How comfortable will teams be betting on that happening though? Not very, is my guess.
Because he is already on the wrong side of 30, this offseason might be Andrelton's last chance to secure a multi-year contract. This winter may be his last opportunity at a big payday. The older he gets, the more his glove will slip, and the less teams will be willing to live with the bat. A fully healthy 2020 season with no defensive decline feels like a must for Simmons to get a fair deal this winter.
Other impending free agents with a lot on the line in 2020: RHP Homer Bailey, Twins; RHP Dellin Betances, Mets; SS Didi Gregorius, Phillies; 1B Yuli Gurriel, Astros; 2B DJ LeMahieu, Yankees; IF Jed Lowrie, Mets; RHP Garrett Richards, Padres; RHP Blake Treinen, Dodgers; RHP Michael Wacha, Mets